A story is told of a king who had a nightmare. His wizard interpreted the dream to mean that the king would be killed on his next birthday and all his wealth would be stolen.
Upon hearing this, the king was filled with fear. He gathered his riches into his throne room and surrounded it with armed guards. But as his birthday drew closer, the king only became more afraid. He moved his riches to a more secure room and doubled the number of guards. On the day before his birthday, he moved his treasures to a vault with only one entrance. The king himself entered the vault, ordered that the doorway be sealed up with a wall of bricks, and instructed his guards not to take the wall down until his birthday had come and gone.
At one minute past midnight, the day after the king’s birthday, the guards tore down the wall as they’d been instructed. The found the king. But he was dead- from suffocation. His nightmare had indeed come true- he was dead and his possessions had been taken from him. But the guilty party wasn’t an enemy. It was his own fear.
Our fears can consume us and paralyze us. Fear can lead us to act irrationally and make poor decisions. That’s why our faith tradition has always insisted that we “be not afraid.”
But what exactly does this mean? That we shouldn’t fear anything at all? That’s a pretty impossible standard, because fear is a natural response to scary situations. In fact, to not be afraid might sometimes be a bad thing, as it might lead us to do something reckless, or be a sign that something isn’t quite right with us. Actor Hugh Laurie, of the TV series “House,” began treatment for depression after driving in a charity demolition derby, and discovering that he was bored instead of frightened. “Boredom,” he reflected, “is not an appropriate response to exploding cars.” But fear is.
When he was in the Garden of Gethsemane, knowing that he faced an unimaginably painful and brutal death, Jesus experienced fear. Like any of us would be, he was afraid. We may find it hard to accept that Jesus would have had such feelings. But think of it this way: in Jesus, the Son of God became like us in every way except sin. Jesus had to experience fear, if he was to be truly human.
So what about “Be not afraid?” Does what happened to Jesus in Gethsemane turn that into nonsense? No. There’s a difference between “Be not afraid” and “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid” means what it says, and it’s just not possible in certain circumstances. But “Be not afraid” means that we shouldn’t “be” our fear. In other words, we shouldn’t let fear define us or control us or overwhelm us or make us do things that we wouldn’t do if the fear wasn’t there. Fear happens. But there are ways we can respond to it that are better than others.
Think back to Gethsemane. Jesus was afraid, and the sleepy disciples with him were afraid too. But they reacted to the same frightening situation in very different ways. At least one of them lashed out in violence, and all of them ran away, leaving their friend to those who hated him. For his part, Jesus was probably angry, but certainly not violent; he was afraid, but he was courageous too. His fortitude was greater than his fear.
Why this difference? And how is it that you and I might be able to follow our Lord’s example and face our fears with courage? To begin with, Jesus trusted in God the Father. Through this trust, Jesus knew that evil and darkness would not have the final word, and that the Father would be always with him in his trials. Because he knew these things, Jesus could hope that beyond the sufferings he would endure, there was something better- something better for him, and something better for the rest of us, too.
This hope and trust of Jesus was fed by prayer. In Gethsemane, the disciples failed to pray, even after Jesus had basically ordered them to do so. That’s one reason why, when the test came, they failed and fled the scene. On the other hand, Jesus prayed through his fears. It was an honest prayer in which he shared his fear with the Father: “Let this cup pass from me!” At the same time, he surrendered himself into the Father’s hands, asking for help to do what the Father wanted him to do: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but what you will.”
Today’s Scripture readings share with us other prayers of faithful people who faced frightening challenges, but who nevertheless had hope in God. “Hasten to help me!” was the plea of the psalm. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” it asked, words Jesus himself cried from the cross. But it ended on a note of glory and praise to God. The first reading, from Isaiah, spoke of one who would face a cruel mocking and beating, but who still could insist: “The Lord God is my help.”
All of us fear something: Terrorism, a struggling economy, a warming climate, a rapidly changing public morality. We may fear rejection, failure, violence, loss of a job, the death of a loved one, the prospect of an illness. Maybe we’re afraid of the consequences of doing the right thing, like what might happen if we blew the whistle in a corrupt workplace, kept the baby of the unplanned pregnancy, or challenged the negative behavior of a friend or relative.
To us, our fears might be nightmarish, like the king in our opening story. But unlike that king, we need not let our fears defeat us. We can take our cue from the King of Kings, and turn to our heavenly Father, and find in him all the hope and courage we need.
Photo Credits (top to bottom): ezioman, lyng883, Capture Queen, Lel4nd, via Creative Commons